We had our monthly Board of Directors call on July 8th and as is fairly common, the call went smooth. Unusually though, I had two items on the agenda, the budget for the ‘spring event’ and the SQL Server Standard.
The budget went through a number of revisions, starting with a super minimalist version in my original proposal and over the course of the process ballooned up to a no profit budget. I think it’s natural to go through that, looking for places where the corners were cut too sharply and fixing them, thinking of places where you want to do nice things. As we got close to final I really felt like we had gone too far, and started looking for things to cross out of the budget. We went back and made some spending items conditional on hitting certain attendance numbers, took some things out, and ended up with a budget that should deliver a modest profit back to the organization if all goes well. Profit is important. It makes us manage to a budget, makes us make hard decisions, and hopefully gives us another small but interesting revenue stream that can in turn help support other activities. The event budget was approved and that really helps get things moving, and I’m glad to be done with that task!
The second part was the discussion of the Standard. This has been part of my portfolio since last year, relaunched in single article PDF format to try to continue the great work my friend Steve Jones did in the years when we owned the print magazine. Grant Fritchey took on the role of editor and so far we’ve produced 7 issues of great content. Yet, when I did a recent review of the project, the click through rate was pretty low, and even with much better marketing it didn’t seem like that we could generate enough content to create the traffic flow to justify creating the content. Chicken and the egg scenario. I thought about it some and early this week sent a note to Rushabh Mehta recommending that we would probably be best served by closing down this project.
About the same time we found that we needed to revise our recently completed FY 2011 budget to account for about $50k less than expected revenue. For Rushabh and the rest of the Board (and me), it wasn’t a hard call to pull about $10k of that from the Standard budget. We voted yesterday to end the SQL Server Standard project, and to look at funding other writing projects on a case by case basis out of the special projects budget.
On content and workflow I think we got a lot of things right:
- Set up Grant Fritchey as the editor with a focus just on finding/managing the content
- Engaged volunteers to do the tech edits
- PASS HQ handled author payments, workflow, copy edit assignments
Grant Fritchey, Brad McGehee and the rest of the volunteers did a a great job on the project, so why did it fail? Without trying to make excuses, here are things I think were involved:
- Written content is a mature market. Not impossible to create a new niche in that market, but was going to take the combination of good pay (which we had at $500/article) and good exposure for right writing, which we weren’t able to provide. That added up to not being hugely attractive to authors.
- We set the bar pretty high for authors. I think this was the right thing to do, we wanted something longer and better than a blog post. Not that blog posts don’t have value, but we wanted something of high qualify for the PASS web site. We also wanted to challenge the authors, give them a writing credit that might help them land a book deal.
- We marketed it poorly. We mentioned it in the Connector and on the PASS web site, but many told me that they didn’t even realize we were publishing the articles. Definitely there is remedial work we could (and should) have done, but it should have been done better from the beginning. Too much focus on content, not enough on the rest.
- We required a login to view the articles. Another decision I believe was good, but we just didn’t have enough content to make a new reader invest the time in setting up a login.
- Lack of deeper involvment from me in areas that could have used help; finding authors and marketing.
At the end we have to call this a modest failure. We could have kept going, I think the right choice to stop. Definitely not exciting to blog about about ending one of my project. I was reminded on the budget call that it’s ok to fail sometimes, and that’s logic I agree with – to make gains you have to take some risks. Still, not fun to fail.